Vous êtes sur la nouvelle plateforme d’Érudit. Bonne visite! Retour à l’ancien site


Memory at the End of History: Mary Shelley's The Last Man

  • Lisa Hopkins

…plus d’informations

  • Lisa Hopkins
    Sheffield Hallam University

At a crucial moment of Mary Shelley's novel The Last Man, the author makes a strange slip of memory. A character whose story has been recurrently mentioned, named Juliet, has been widowed, and is living with her small child in a group of plague survivors, led by a charismatic despot, who instantly weed out anyone who shows signs of the disease. Juliet is terrified of losing her baby, the only thing left to her; so, the narrator informs us, "her love for her child made her eager to cling to the merest straw held out to save him."  [1] But when, a mere three pages later, the baby has indeed been taken from her, Juliet's exclamation of grief is an unexpected one: "My child, my child! He has my child; my darling girl is my hostage" (286). The baby has changed gender.

It is the smallest of slips, in a long and complex novel with a proliferation of characters; but all the same it is a curiously disruptive one. Either it breaks the thread of the narrative illusion by reminding us of the existence - and fallibility - of Mary Shelley herself as author, or - even more disturbingly - we preserve the illusion and read it as a lapse on the part of the mother.  [2] We could, conceivably, even take it to heighten the verisimilitude of the illusion, if we imagine it to register a distress so great that the character has genuinely forgotten the gender of her child; and such a reading could in fact be curiously suggestive, since gender ambiguity is in many ways at the heart of this story. As Betty T. Bennett comments, "[t]he roles of women and men are consciously displaced throughout, beginning with the ungendered narrator and the ungendered companion",  [3] so it would be richly appropriate for this process to culminate in a literally ungendered child.

The narrator of the events, Lionel Verney, is a clear portrait of Mary Shelley herself, focusing particularly on her position as sole survivor both of her mother's family and of the Shelley-Byron group. The motif of the survivor is one often used by Mary Shelley in her work - it is deployed with particular force in the figure of Lady Katherine Gordon in The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck - and Lionel Verney provides an obvious, and very poignant, example. His isolated upbringing in the north also points to Mary Shelley's own childhood experiences in Dundee (which are similarly reworked for the childhood of the heroine in Mathilda), and his close relationship with Adrian - Mary Shelley's only acknowledged portrait of her husband - is another clearly autobiographical factor. Nevertheless, Mary Shelley has chosen to write herself into her novel not as a woman, but as a man. It might well be possible to argue that a similar strategy has already been used in Frankenstein, where the creature has often been read as a representation of Mary herself; and there are perhaps similarities between the relatively low-key gender roles of both the Monster and Lionel Verney, neither of whom takes pains to define themselves in ways closely associated with traditional images of masculinity.  [4] When we recall Mary Shelley's role in abetting the cross-dressing of Mary Diana Dods, it might well be possible to see a similar degree of androgyny at work in the characterisation of Verney.

In addition to this instance of fictional transvestism, The Last Man as a whole is pointedly structured around brother-sister pairings, and consistently counterpoints the very different fates that befall siblings of different genders. Lionel Verney has a sister, Perdita; they grow up together, and share the same background of family distress and rural surroundings. But whereas Lionel grows up to possess quite phenomenal recuperative powers, proving immune not only to the ravages of the plague itself but also to the crushing grief of the loss of all his family and friends, Perdita is fragile and unstable. Once the idyll of her marriage to Raymond is shattered by his dalliance with Evadne, her equilibrium is lost for ever, and she eventually kills herself rather than be parted from his tomb, despite the fact that she thus leaves her daughter friendless. The difference between the survivor and the mourner is sharply marked indeed.

A similar degree of difference marks the portrayal of Adrian and his sister, Idris, though here the gender polarities apparently structuring the Lionel / Perdita opposition are notably blurred. Idris' name is one more commonly associated with men, and though she is consistently portrayed as an admirable wife and mother, she is also noticeably more physically and emotionally robust than her delicate brother, who, at various points in the narrative, loses his reason. The point is further emphasised by Adrian's hopeless love for Evadne, who, herself in love with Raymond, adopts male disguise and actually dies fighting on the battlefield. Next to both his sweetheart and his sister, Adrian is noticeably feminised. In a text characterised by such profound gender ambiguity, it seems strangely suitable that Mary Shelley should misremember the sex of Juliet's baby.

And yet, on another level, it seems to be precisely in this misremembering that the novel's own attitude to the processes of memorialisation is best captured. The Last Man is, above all else, an attempt both to record a profound sense of loss and also to capture as closely as possible the nature of what has been lost. Its entire structure points up its concentration on the past rather than on the future, for though set in the future, the assertion of inevitable annihilation means that there can be no applicability in its lessons, no moral, no agenda. It opens by inserting itself very firmly within traditional discourses of travel and, too, of historiography, for the references to the cave of the Sibyl, the ur -narrator, evoke the annals of Rome. Mary Shelley had a considerable interest in both these forms of recording - daughter of a travel writer, she herself also wrote about her journeys, and, additionally, she showed in The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck a highly sophisticated command of the traditions of historiography and of the various accounts of the pretender's life. She would, therefore, have been well aware of the traditional humanist expectation that knowledge of the past can prepare for the future, and she frequently engages with the idea, as in the carefully chosen reading with which she takes care to provide both Mathilda and the Monster in their otherwise isolated upbringings. But historical knowledge can have no such role at the end of all history.

Nevertheless, even though he has no expectation of being read, it is the strong instinct of Lionel Verney to memorialise his experiences. The impulse to narrate for its own sake was one of which Mary Shelley herself must have been acutely aware. As a child, she hid behind a curtain to hear Coleridge recite The Rime of the Ancient Mariner , a poem in which narrative power is propelled solely by the simple desire to tell;  [5] the tale transmitted is, after all, hardly distinguished by its practical usefulness or applicability. When Mary Shelley herself turned to producing narratives similarly unusual, which often seem to be structured by the transformations characteristic of dreamwork rather than by conventional logic, they are frequently threaded by sustained and often counterpointed use of the motifs of memory and history, and the processes by and towards which they operate.

Mary Shelley's characteristic emphasis is on what Donna Tartt has recently called the secret history. She and her narrators recount stories which, for various reasons, can either never be made public or could not be expected to command belief, and of which the only accurate record therefore exists in the text. As Guido in 'Transformation' suggests, "when any strange, supernatural, and necromantic adventure has occurred to a human being, that being, however desirous he may be to conceal the same, feels at certain periods torn up as it were by an intellectual earthquake, and is forced to bare the inner depths of his spirit to another."  [6] The stories are rarely imagined as having moral or cautionary value. In Frankenstein , the story of the man who meddles with nature and produces a monster might well seem a suitable subject for an awful warning; certainly that is how the narrative has often been received, since the spectre of Victor Frankenstein is so regularly invoked in response to scientific breakthroughs of the most diverse kind. Victor, however, seeks not to warn his society as a whole, but Walton alone, and Walton in turn transmits his account in the most private and personal of forms, the letter. As we see when Victor does not even attempt to save Justine, the story is precisely one not to be propelled into the public domain. This is in distinct opposition to the very different kinds of historical recording which the Monster encounters in his reading. The Monster is to live only in memory, and it is profoundly ironic that the collective consciousness has so profoundly mis remembered him by insistently (though suggestively) confusing his name with that of his creator, so that the first experience which many modern students have with the text itself requires them to forget precisely the things they thought they knew about it.

Victor's method of creation of the Monster, moreover, raises interesting questions about the nature of memory itself, for he uses reconstituted parts which have already belonged to previous bodies. Will the Monster, then, be a Lockean tabula rasa , or will he bear traces of his previous identities? In Leonore Fleischer's recent novelisation of the Kenneth Branagh film, this issue bulks very large, for the brain Frankenstein uses comes from his old tutor Waldmann; it is also, famously, the use of a brain from a jar marked 'abnormal' which contributes to the demonic behaviour of the Creature in other filmed versions of the text. When the Creature in Branagh's film tells his creator that he can instinctively play the flute and perform other acts as though they were 'things remembered', Branagh's Frankenstein replies that his inherent skills are due to 'Trace memories in the brain, perhaps'. In Frankenstein itself, there may seem to be little interest in the question, but in fact its very absence functions in itself as a mark of adherence, by and large, to the Lockean position, and thus automatically endorses a Godwinian educational agenda.

Elsewhere in Mary Shelley's writing, memory - which in Valperga is figured as 'the vestibule' of human consciousness  [7] - is much more overtly flagged as an issue. The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck is entirely based on the premise that society's collective memorialisation of events can be radically at fault; the man we 'know' as a Pretender is in fact a prince. (Though Mary Shelley herself seems hardly concerned to rectify what she sees as this mistake: with a bravura refusal to write her text as 'serious' historiography, she includes only one footnote of any length - and she uses it only to testify to her own emotional investment in her portrait of Lady Katherine Gordon).  [8] A similar fear of misremembering haunts the heroine of Mathilda . She laments, "Who can be more solitary even in a crowd that one whose history and the never ending feelings and remembrances arising from it is known to no living soul",  [9] and dreads a visit from an aunt or cousin who, unaware of the true situation, would "say that my father had surely lost his wits ever since my mother's death" (217). Suggestively, Mathilda's melancholy is assuaged only when she begins to "read history, and to lose my individuality in the crowd that had existed before me" (222); and it seems to be partly as a member of a community and continuity of memorialisation that, shortly after this, she begins to record her own memories for the later perusal of Woodville.

Memory and history are again intimately linked in Mary Shelley's essay on 'Roger Dodsworth: The Reanimated Englishman', when she jokes about her father's supposed reaction to the Dodsworth hoax: "Mr. Godwin had suspended for the sake of such authentic information the history of the Commonwealth he had just begun."  [10] In this essay, Mary Shelley does address the question she did not engage with in Frankenstein , of what would become of a mind that contained memories of previous lives, but she does so in terms that make it clear that she does indeed adhere to the idea of the tabula rasa . It is a long passage, but its relevance here and its extreme intrinsic interest make it well worth quoting in full:

Pythagoras, we are told, remembered many transmigrations of this sort, as having occurred to himself, though for a philosopher he made very little use of his anterior memories. It would prove an instructive school for kings and statesmen, and in fact for all human beings, called on as they are, to play their part on the stage of the world, could they remember what they had been...While the love of glory and posthumous reputation is as natural to man as his attachment to life itself, he must be, under such a state of things, tremblingly alive to the historic records of his honour or shame. The mild spirit of Fox would have been soothed by the recollection that he played a worthy part as Marcus Antoninus - the former experiences of Alcibiades or even of the emasculated Steeny of James I. might have caused Sheridan to have refused to tread over again the same path of dazzling but fleeting brilliancy...If at the present moment the witch, memory, were in a freak, to cause all the present generation to recollect that some ten centuries back they had been somebody else, would not several of our free thinking martyrs wonder to find that they had suffered as Christians under Domitian, while the judge as he passed sentence would become aware, that formerly he had condemned the saints of the early church to the torture, for not renouncing the religion he now upheld - nothing but benevolent actions and real goodness would come pure out of the ordeal...If philosophical novels were in fashion, we conceive an excellent one might be written on the development of the same mind in various stations, in different periods of the world's history.


However, as Mary Shelley well knew (this is surely another joke about her father) philosophical novels were not in fashion, and she never took up her own suggestion. She did, however, write a near-variation on it, in 'The Mortal Immortal: A Tale', which documents the history of the three hundred and twenty-three year-old Winzy. Her game, though, is a complex one, as Winzy writes:

All the world has heard of Cornelius Agrippa. His memory is as immortal as his arts have made me. All the world has also heard of his scholar, who, unawares, raised the foul fiend during his master's absence, and was destroyed by him. The report, true or false, of this accident, was attended with many inconveniences to the renowned philosopher.  [11]

This passage begins by piquing the reader's curiosity. In the classic marketing ploy of fiction from Defoe onwards, it claims a place in discourses of the famous: "All the world has heard of Cornelius Agrippa." We are further titillated by being introduced to someone who actually knew the great man - and then abruptly let down when the eye-witness turns out to be unable to confirm or deny the truth of the most famous anecdote about Agrippa. This is, we are soon afterwards told, because, like Raphael when Adam has to tell him about the creation of mankind, Winzy was elsewhere at the crucial moment. However, though the famous story must remain unconfirmed, a lesser-known, but equally sensational one can be unfolded in its place, adhering to Mary Shelley's typical pattern of the 'secret history'. As usual, its protagonist is strongly motivated to narrate his story: "Before I go, a miserable vanity has caused me to pen these pages. I would not die, and leave no name behind" (325).

This is also the motivating principle of Lionel Verney's account of his adventures in The Last Man. Verney writes with no expectation of any reader, but he still feels driven to tell his story. In fact, though, he does have readers (indeed this has, until recently, been the only one of Mary Shelley's works apart from Frankenstein to receive periodic reprintings and elicit significant critical response). However, the narrator-reader relationship is, in this instance, an extraordinarily complicated one. The narrative structure of the book, purporting as it does to be the product of problematically related loose pages found in the cave of the Sibyl, formally destabilises our sense of the relationship between knowledge of the events and their pastness: Verney's narrative is simultaneously prophecy, history, and memory, and it is by no means clear which of these elements dominates. To complicate the situation further, when the book has been noticed at all in recent years it has often been acclaimed as literal prophecy, since it so strikingly foretells the downfall of the royal house of Windsor (an allusion that becomes more topical with every passing day...). But it relates not only to the present and future of our own historical royal family; it also memorialises their past, since Verney's interment of his dead wife in the royal vault at Windsor Castle would surely evoke memories of the death in childbirth of Princess Charlotte (on which Percy Shelley wrote). Not merely a poignant loss, this had been an event with momentous political repercussions, since it had led directly to the Duke of Kent's marriage to Victoire of Saxe-Coburg and the birth and eventual accession of Queen Victoria. Political prophecy merges here with a suggestively dislocated mis-remembering of the political past masquerading as the future.

The unspoken but surely implicit presence of Princess Charlotte seems to me to hover over this text as powerfully as Juliet's ungendered baby. William A. Walling has suggested that the key to the novel is in fact to be found in a kind of inaccuracy of recording: "Mary was never to write Shelley's biography, and it is here, in the interconnection between her desire to 'commemorate' Shelley's memory and her failure to do so in any formal fashion, that we find a central importance for an understanding of The Last Man."  [12] Shelley and Byron are not merely recorded in this work, but transmuted, into the characters of Adrian and Raymond; Mary Shelley herself is even more strikingly transformed - as so many of her own characters are - by her regendering as Lionel Verney. Memory may, as throughout her work, be the mainspring of narrative, but it is clearly perceived as a far from transparent mediator - as indeed the narratorial aporia surrounding the gender of Juliet's baby so richly figures. Moreover, it is above all memory, rather than documents or other accounts, on which Mary Shelley's narrators rely as they record their experiences, and their secret, personal histories are indeed often at odds with more public versions of events. At the end of history, then, Lionel Verney, misremembering Mary Shelley's life as he remembers his own, produces a tale that, like The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck , precisely refuses any status as history (and indeed any clear status at all). Like William Godwin in her anecdote, suspending his history of the Civil War until he can have access to the memory of Roger Dodsworth, Mary Shelley repeatedly suggests both the centrality and the fragility of memory in the production of all our histories.

Parties annexes